A place in Charleston’s history is the right site for African American Museum

  • Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2013 6:00 a.m.

We’re No. 1.

That is, Charleston is the No. 1 tourist destination in the United States for the third straight year in the Conde Nast readers poll released last week.

But we’re also No. 1 in a far less flattering category.

PBS viewers saw assorted scenes of our picturesque Holy City Tuesday night early in the opener of the three-part series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.”

And as our architectural and natural beauty graced the screen, viewers heard Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the show’s writer and narrator, deliver this history reminder:

“Charleston, South Carolina — this was once the center of the slave trade in the 13 colonies. Over 40 percent of all the slaves who entered our country came through this city.”

That make us the No. 1 appropriate place for the International African American Museum.

Keep that in mind when considering Charleston City Council’s unanimous vote Tuesday night to back a $12.5 million revenue bond for the museum.

Mayor Joe Riley pitched the museum during a Wednesday news conference at its proposed site next to the S.C. Aquarium, near what was once Gadsden’s Wharf.

Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor Jr., alongside the mayor and other dignitaries, pledged a matching $12.5 million, likely from the accommodations tax.

Add $25 million that Mayor Riley said he expects the General Assembly to provide, and $25 million more from private contributions, and the project would have the $75 million its advocates say they need to do it right.

The clock is running

Hmm.

Too many Charleston streets flood all too quickly and deeply when rain and high tide coincide. The Battery is in rough shape.

The county — and the state — have pressing infrastructure needs of their own.

And that museum idea, first presented by the mayor more than a decade ago, has long appeared stymied by a money shortage.

So why now?

Try timing: The mayor has said he’s stepping down after his 10th term ends in 2015. He said Wednesday that the museum plan is to begin construction in late 2015 or early 2016 and to open it in 2018.

Now try perfect placement: The mayor cited “the relatively recent discovery” that more than 70,000 slaves entered the U.S. at Gadsden’s Wharf from 1803-07 during the waning days of slave importation into our nation. Riley: “They came in chains and they were sold upon this property.”

Putting the museum near that property would make the site an exhibit all its own.

Putting the museum in the city that is both the top tourist destination and slave entry point in the U.S. makes historic, educational — and economic — sense.

But the mayor stressed that the museum would convey an “inspiring” theme: “It’s human beings. I mean, this is a story of courage and fortitude, people who came here involuntarily and ended up helping build our country.”

Plus, accurate history — and blame — are rarely all black or white.

For instance, as Professor Gates put it from the other side of the Atlantic on Tuesday night’s “Many Rivers to Cross” opener:

“Sierra Leone was once a major hub for the slave trade. More than 300,000 people were taken from here and shipped to the new world in bondage. But the first slave traders in this place weren’t Europeans. They were other black Africans.”

That doesn’t give a moral pass to the white slave traders of long ago.

However, fairly exploring history, including post-slavery Jim Crow injustice, can advance understanding of not just who we are but where we’ve been, where we are and where we should go.

Back to the waterfront:

Intriguing harbor views frequently distracted me at Wednesday’s news conference.

A huge cargo ship bound for the Wando Terminal somehow made it under the bridge.

The Gen. Beauregard tour boat left the dock for Fort Sumter.

At least a half dozen dolphins cavorted close to shore under a near-cloudless sky.

A study in contrasts

Yet try to imagine how terribly different, even on similarly pretty days, that same place must have looked to those captive newcomers.

No, this column isn’t another case of white guilt run amok.

Why take the blame or the credit for any bad or good done by your ancestors?

No, this column is simply another vote for taking advantage of an historic opportunity.

And Charleston’s past makes the International African American Museum a good fit for Charleston’s future.



Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is wooten@postandcourier.com.

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